Saturday, November 12, 2022

Review of Olesya Salnikova Gilmore's The Witch and the Tsar, myth-inspired historical fantasy set in 16th-century Russia

In the vein of Madeline Miller’s Circe and other feminist takes on long-enduring myths, Gilmore’s debut novel takes a fresh look at Baba Yaga, depicting her not as an evil hag but as a half-mortal woman who shoulders the burden of saving Russia’s people from tyranny and malevolent gods during Ivan the Terrible’s reign.

Daughter of Mokosh, an ancient earth goddess, Yaga is a skilled healer who helps clients who visit her hut in the remote Russian woods. Though centuries old, she appears no more than thirty and misses living in a community, but she’s learned her lesson about involving herself in human affairs. That is, until Anastasia Romanovna, the tsaritsa, calls upon their longtime friendship. Anastasia has been poisoned, and after healing her, Yaga returns to Moscow and the royal court to safeguard Anastasia’s life—and finds herself facing characters with whom she has a painful history, and who may be manipulating Tsar Ivan to their own dreadful purposes.

Set amid the political turmoil of 16th-century Russia, a woefully underutilized setting in fiction, The Witch and the Tsar incorporates impressive world-building—the necessary scaffolding for an immersive experience in both historical fiction and fantasy. The novel is about as ideal a crossover between the genres that it’s possible to achieve, with vivid details on colorful period clothing, palace décor, and the brooding taiga as well as otherworldly rituals and capricious divine beings. Though packed with bursts of action, the story is quite thoughtful and paced accordingly.

The overall tone is dark, though Yaga’s chicken-legged hut, Little Hen, is adorable and lightens the mood on occasion. Yaga can be overly naïve, given her true age and experience, though Gilmore succeeds in showing her emotional growth and the full range of her mortal and divine natures. This deep-dive into Russian history and folklore presents a rich cultural panorama.

The Witch and the Tsar was published by Berkley/Ace on September 20; I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review.  The novel will be published in the UK by HarperVoyager in December.


  1. Anonymous12:03 PM

    Reminds me of Korovia, the fantasy world created by Charles Moffat. His books feel like historical fantasies, but set in a Slavic-themed setting. He also writes an alternative history/historical fiction series called Alt-Earth.

    1. Thanks for the info - I wasn't familiar with Charles Moffat's work at all.